An American Poisoning: The Story of Plan Colombia

A farmer picks coca leaves in a field in Colombia.
Source: NHPR

This is an op-ed.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton signed a deal with the Colombian government to provide financial and military aid to Columbia’s anti-drug and guerilla operations — a deal still in operation today. The deal, known as “Plan Colombia”, included material aid, training, and intelligence services, and was designed to cripple the Colombian cocaine market along with the FARC, a guerilla group which has been in a civil war with the government for the past 50 years.

An initial component of the Plan Colombia was to use American satellite technology and airpower to spray tens of tons of the pesticide Glyphosate over the southern Colombian landscape, with the intention of wiping out the largest supply of cocaine in the world. However, the impacts of this component were disastrous: large swaths of agricultural farmland were exposed to Glyphosate and more than one million poor Colombians were displaced. Thousands of acres of subsistence farmland ( growing corn, beans, plantains, and coca) were destroyed, along with hundreds of acres of national park land and other ecologically important lands.

Plan Colombia continued to displace hundreds of thousands of more people through these acts of environmental degradation and the increased intensity of fighting between the government forces and the FARC. Even today, many of the impoverished inhabitants of southern Colombia are still experiencing devastating health impacts from the widespread use of Glyphosate.

In order to understand why Plan Colombia went wrong, we need to understand where it was taking place. Southern Colombia’s rich, organic soil and humid climate make it one of the most fertile regions in the world, although the thick, overgrown forest create space issues. Because of this, most of the farmers only have small plots of land, where they can grow different varieties of crops alongside one another to save from clearing more land. Coca is grown alongside corn, plantains, and other crops that are vital to the survival of the farmers.

When American and Colombian forces targeted the coca in those fields, they also dumped tons of pesticides on the different sustenance crops, destroying the only means of economic production many of these farmers had. This was a godsend for the jungle-dwelling guerilla FARC forces, as the newly displaced farmers became easy marks to either rob or recruit. In the coming decades, the struggle between the FARC and the Colombian government only became bloodier, enriched by the actions of the US government.

As these struggles mounted, the implications for public health were similarly devastating. Glyphosate — more commonly known by its name-brand, Roundup Ultra — is a highly stable molecule designed to embed itself in the soil, where it can work itself into the food web through a process called biomagnification. Through biomagnification, apex predators like humans end up receiving a magnified dose of the pesticide as it becomes more concentrated in a system. This is what happened to the Colombian peasant workers, or Campesinos, who were suddenly forced to live off of the land once their crops were destroyed by the pesticides, and rely on naturally occurring plants and animals that ingested doses of Roundup through the soil, plants, and water.

These Campesinos almost immediately began to show signs of poisoning: children broke out in rashes, thousands were sick with running fevers, and some died immediately from dehydration or poisoning. Though it is enormously difficult to find data on this matter, due hard-to-reach terrain, organizations like Human Rights Watch estimate that tens of thousands of Colombians displayed symptoms of pesticide poisoning, and thousands could have died in the immediate aftermath from fever, dehydration, and other symptoms. Most of the dead were children and the elderly.

In the decades following Plan Colombia’s initiation, rates of Parkinson’s and certain types of cancer have increased enormously. For years, scientists have studied and found an association between Parkinson’s and Roundup, and many now agree that there is also an epigenetic connection. Additionally, the World Health Organization has confirmed that Roundup is a carcinogen, especially when exposed to children. Lung, pancreatic, and brain cancer are killing a new generation of Campesinos who can barely remember the US helicopters flying over their heads.

In 2014, President Obama renewed Plan Colombia, with an additional initiative to start peace talks with the FARC. In October of 2015, the Colombian government stopped spraying Roundup, to the dismay of the American government and Monsanto — the pesticide’s manufacturer. As of the publication of this article, the peace talks have resulted in the demobilization of virtually every anti-government guerilla group, increasing southern Colombia’s accessibility to aid workers and investigators. Colombia’s economy is growing and diversifying, more children are surviving infancy and receiving an education than at almost any point in modern Colombian history. Yet, this country still struggles with its demons.

In many ways, the damage is already done. Hundreds of thousands of people are dead, millions have been displaced, and survivors are still bearing the consequences of this operation. A US government survey confirmed that Plan Colombia did little or nothing to slow the supply of cocaine entering the US, and cartel profits actually increased slightly during the operation.

Plan Colombia was an act of Environmental Authoritarianism — the actions of a few powerful men in Bogotá and Washington, without the consultation or consideration of the people who would be affected. When the power that modern humans wield is used without proper consideration, it can shape the world in dangerous and unpredictable ways, and too often those changes hurt the people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. A story of pain, loss, and destruction is carved into the Colombian countryside, a scar that may never disappear.

But a new generation of leaders on both continents are learning from this story, and are doing better than their 20th century counterparts. Many of the newly elected American members of Congress are beginning to recognize that drug addiction is not a war to be won, but a sickness to be cured. Similarly, universities in Colombia are doing groundbreaking research on the movement of pesticides through ecosystems, and how we can treat people affected by them.

Colombia was shattered by human hands, inside and outside its borders, but human hands are also the only thing capable of piecing it back together.

Jacob Dadmun

Jacob Dadmun is a freshman in the Society and Environment major at the College of Natural Resources with an intended minor in public policy. He grew up backpacking with his family in the mountains of Southern California, near where he grew up in San Diego. He found a passion for government in high school through the program Youth and Government, and intends to follow a career in public office. He is fascinated by international relations, large scale ecosystems, and clouds. He worked with the ACLU on smart racial justice and national security strategies, and did an academic residency at the aquatic lab in Biosphere 2, where he saw the potential good that public policy can have at addressing the climate crisis and rebalancing the earth’s natural systems. When at home in San Diego, he can generally be found eating Mexican food or sitting on the beach (or both), or locked in his room ranting about Ecuadorian cat populations. His interests include free diving, backpacking, history memes, and pretending to have a social life. Jacob Dadmun covers international environmental governance and policy.

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